Friday, November 09, 2018

We need to talk about the value of liberal studies



from @meakoopa
Honestly, I was about to write about the NRA telling doctors to "stay in their lane" on gun violence because... I mean do I even have to explain?
But I've written about the erosion of the public's faith in experts here before, and while drafting a new version of that, I stumbled across something that is more fun, and it approaches the same issue from a very different angle: The value of an education that develops students who "read critically, write cogently and think broadly."
from HattertheThird

It started with a meme, of course.

The image and the commentary made the "most viral" page for a lot of reasons, nudity certainly being one of them. But something like this does not get to that spot on Imgur without being a commentary on the times.

And that is phenomenal because just a little digging turns this meme into powerful evidence for an argument on the value of the liberal arts.


  • Art history 
  • European history
  • Political science
  • Cultural studies
  • Media Studies
  • Classical studies
  • Philosophy
  • Mechanical Engineering
Those are some of the disciplines that contribute to just how much this meme has to say. 

The painting Truth Coming Out of Her Well was painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Art historians suggest that the painting not only represents Gérôme's hostility towards Impressionism, they have also noted that it was likely a comment on the Dreyfus affair

The Dreyfus affair revolved around trials for spying and espionage. It fueled an intense political division within France that gave rise to both nationalism and antisemitism. 

The man who was falsely accused of spying for the Germans and then sentenced to life in prison was Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a man of Jewish descent. Two years later the French found evidence that it was actually a man named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy who had leaked secrets to the Germans. Esterhazy (a descendant born out of wedlock to the prominent Hungarian noble family) was tried behind closed doors and acquitted before he was secreted off to the United Kingdom where he wrote for anti-semitic newspapers until his death in 1923. 

The coverup was revealed via an open letter titled J'Accuse…! which was published in L'Aurore, a French newspaper. 

The country of France was split by this scandal in profound ways that played out in media outlets with political agendas. 

The painting gets its title from the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus who said, "Of truth we know nothing, for truth is in a well."

And all of this started because someone (probably Esterhazy) passed secret military plans to the Germans - plans discovered by a counter-intelligence agent working as a cleaner in the German embassy. This woman found, among other things, the torn-up plans for the new French artillery gun, the 120mm howitzer. 

Which is interesting; that fact led some to theorize that Esterhazy was actually a double agent. At the time of the leak, you see, it seems the French had already scrapped the 120mm for the famous French 75 - an artillery weapon widely regarded as the first piece of modern artillery.

And I'm sorry, but if that web of facts from across several disciplines doesn't draw you in and inform your understanding of current events, then you are missing out big time. 

It is interdisciplinary knowledge that allows us to interact with the world in a modern way - a way that helps us understand what art means, what history tells us, what political leaders should do, what racism looks like, what corruption can lead to, what we should expect from the media, what truth means, what kinds of secrets need to be kept, and what the tools we build can do.